Climate madness in Melbourne

Climate madness in Melbourne

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 23rd June, 2012

Last month our Prime Minister spoke of her ambitions to make Australia a ‘food superpower’, so that we can become a ‘food bowl’ for Asia, and not just the region’s mining quarry.

Her lead was followed a couple of weeks later by Victoria’s Agriculture and Food Security Minister, Peter Walsh, who set for his State’s primary producers the ambitious target of doubling their output by 2030. He believes that just as Western Australia and Queensland have becoming mining superpowers, Victoria can take the lead in the push to convert Australia into a food superpower.

I’ve spoken recently with several research scientists in Melbourne, some inside government, some in academic and other institutions. These people are experienced professionals who’ve closely studied, over many years, Victoria’s agricultural sector and its performance. They’ve integrated climate modelling into detailed assessments of the anticipated performances of major crops and livestock in different regions over the coming decades. They spoke to me on a confidential basis, so I’ve not named them to protect their identities.

Regarding Peter Walsh’s target, they told that they ‘have no idea how he’s going to do it, where the best farmland is going to be’. Mid-range climate change forecasts of warming in the 1.5oC – 2.0 oC range, they point out, will see substantial declines in productivity across the northern half of the State. Warming beyond that range, which is looking increasingly likely, given the 40% increase in global greenhouse emissions since 1990, may mean the abandonment of agriculture across entire regions.

The most climate-resilient areas are those with the best soils and most secure access to water, including treated and recycled waste water. They are on Melbourne’s peri-urban fringes. But several thousand hectares of that land will soon be growing houses, not food, due to expansions of the city’s urban growth boundary, confirmed last week by Planning Minister Matthew Guy.

Drought in the Murray-Darling
Drought in the Murray-Darling

The people I’ve spoken with shake their heads in dismay at the astonishing incapacity of senior politicians and bureaucrats to grasp the longer-term strategic import of protecting prime peri-urban farmland with secure access to water. But it gets worse.

I was told that there is a strong strain of climate change scepticism and denialism that pervades the current Victorian government and sections of the bureaucracy. According to the research scientists:

“The problem is that a large percentage of [senior] people in [the government] don’t believe in climate change. Their vision of agriculture is large-scale commodity production, outside Melbourne, in areas that will be heavily impacted by climate change.”

Climate change is now, it seems, a dirty phrase in the Victorian Government:

“We started with climate change [under Labor]. Then some people started talking about climate variability…Then, with the change of government, it became ‘climate challenges’, then ‘climate volatility’. And a few months ago they discovered the words ‘climate evolution’. And now we’re basically not talking about it at all, it’s fallen to the wayside. To the point that they have even cut the climate change unit in the Department of Planning.”

There is deep pessimism across much of the scientific fraternity in the wake of these sorts of developments. “To a large extent, the battle for climate change has been lost for a long period, post-Copenhagen”, I was told. The reason? A rigid and doctrinaire attachment to a conservative political ideology which sees the market as holding the solution to all the world’s problems; and which pushes the natural sciences, and systems thinking, and broader and longer-term notions of resilience, outside the boundaries of acceptable political discourse or policy.

Drought in Australia's foodbowl
Drought in Australia’s foodbowl

This ideology dominates across the political spectrum, so changing governments is no answer. So what might bring it down? Perhaps only the ultimate enounter with undeniable physical reality:

“In twenty years, this thing will bite. There will be 50 oC days in Mildura, ten-year droughts, pestilence and so on, as in the Bible. Then there will be such a community reaction that the political parties will be kicked out. It will take a community groundswell through a crisis situation.”